“Which corporate leaders do you admire?” was a question posed to me during a break during a leadership workshop I was conducting.

In years past I would have rattled off a list of the “usual suspects” of familiar names with folks like Anne Mulcahy, Alan Mulally, Shelly Lazarus, and Larry Bossidy. Not this time! With respect to all of these fine leaders, who except for Mulally, are retired, I continue to be impressed by every day leaders, the men and women I have the privilege of knowing either as a coach, consultant, or interested observer.

To me the level of “leadership literacy” has risen dramatically. That means managers really know how to lead. I think this comes from a few factors. One, the teaching of leadership by virtue of corporate and executive education has never been more prevalent. Two, managers have received coaching and mentoring from more senior leaders who have set a fine example. Three, critical mass is taking hold, that is, good leaders beget good followers who in turn become good leaders. It is a virtuous circle of leadership development.

Toward that end, here some examples of “leadership literacy,” along with sound management practices, I’ve observed.

  • A senior vice president whose span of control increased exponentially from thirty to over 300 globally made time to travel to distant locations to introduce himself and to find ways so that local managers would have more autonomy including localized decision-making.
  • A senior director whose responsibility is business development is transforming the culture of his traditionally minded organization by hiring bright, capable people whose backgrounds and education is different from their predecessors.
  • A senior director split his job into three so that he could promote three people and increase their areas of responsibility as well as their compensation.
  • A senior leader in health care reinforced the values of trust and integrity by enabling his direct reports to assume greater levels of responsibility so they will become more accomplished problem-solvers, managers, and of course leaders of others.
  • An up and coming manager who was getting hammered in “turf wars” between departments reversed tactics. He became more accommodating by sharing information and providing insights that would help his former adversaries do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.

But just because these folks are showing us the way does not mean everyone is. After all the great recession was worsened by failures of leadership in the corporate sectors as we saw greed trump fiscal responsibility.

What’s more, when a CEO recently asked me how much leadership teaching I could do with senior leaders who were already experienced, I told him that knowing about leadership is not the same as performing as a leader. Many senior leaders whom I coach are adept leaders but they are savvy to know their limitations and want to improve. They are seeking to gain further insights into how they can become better communicators, delegators, enablers, supervisors, and ultimately leaders.

That said, I continue to be amazed at the fine example that so many leaders with whom I interact. Again and again I have been impressed with men and women who put their teams first at the expense of themselves. These folks hold themselves accountable, and show the rest us the way by being trustworthy and accountable for their actions. None are saints, but I would consider each of them a role model from which the rest of us can learn.

First posted on FastCompany.com on 8.31.10